2020: The Year Small Pleasures Finally Eclipsed Celebrity Culture

 (Matias North/ Unsplash)

If you’re looking for a perfect encapsulation of what happened to celebrity culture in 2020, look no further than this Twitter thread that emerged last week.

Enthusiastic bird watching is nothing new, of course, especially in New York City. But in December 2020, seeing a large group of photographers raving over a bird instead of a celebrity isn’t just less surprising than it would’ve been in January, it’s somehow infinitely more relatable. Because as everyone has struggled to keep their heads above the proverbial flood waters for the last 10 months, these kinds of small pleasures have dominated all of our lives. And they’ve come remarkably close to decimating celebrity culture as a national pastime.

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There can be no doubt that 2020 has forced us to reevaluate all priorities: our careers, homes, families, relationships—even our appearances. But caring about celebrities was one of the very first things to go by the wayside when normal life unceremoniously shut down in March.

It’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment when we turned our backs either. It was this:

Gal Gadot et al.’s ill-advised, cringe-worthy, patronizing, self-indulgent response to a global pandemic was a cold bucket of water on the head, at the precise moment we neither wanted nor needed one. But it also woke us up. Overnight, celebrity culture went from providing a casual mental escape to being so far beyond the realms of real—the real stress, real fear, real discomfort we were all feeling—that it became utterly and instantaneously unpalatable.

That was exacerbated by celebrities telling us how to handle the pandemic from the comforts of their mansions, their hot tubs, their meditation retreats, and their first-class seats on airplanes. By the time a group of overwrought white actors declared in June—in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd—that they were taking responsibility for turning blind eyes to racial injustice, the public greeted it by collectively rolling theirs. Hell, by the end of 2020, even Ellen DeGeneres—previously one of America’s most beloved TV hosts—was persona non grata, after allegations of her toxic workplace emerged.

In my role as a pop culture journalist this year, the shift has been palpable. By the end of spring, it was abundantly clear that KQED Arts & Culture readers were suddenly more interested in hearing about jigsaw puzzles and escaped goats than about Harry and Meghan. (I knew I was really in trouble after a story about Dolly Parton flopped.) My job, almost overnight, became about self-care and self-contained pastimes that were firmly outside of the realms of the rich and the famous. The upper crust, it seemed, had been rendered largely irrelevant, almost overnight.

The public’s relationship with celebrities was further disconnected after the entertainment industry all but ground to a halt. Concert tours were delayed indefinitely, a shocking number of movie releases were postponed until 2021, and TV shows either stopped dead in their tracks, or were forced to come up with complicated production solutions. (Oddly, this actually worked to benefit viewers in some cases. The Great British Baking Show’s quarantined contestants were closer than ever, for one. And in lieu of making Season 2, HBO’s Euphoria aired a two-person, one-hour special in December that should be remembered as one of the most thought-provoking hours of television ... well, ever.)

Another factor influencing our level of interest in famous people was a sudden drop in commuting time across the nation. According to Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom, since March, almost twice as many employees are working from home than those at workplaces. The non-commuters are now 42% of America’s labor force. Without mundane journeys to fill with distractions, workers are less in need of frivolous celebrity tidbits.

The erasure of all those commutes and early morning Starbucks lines undoubtedly contributed to the death of short-form streaming channel Quibi, just six months after it launched. And not even the biggest names on its roster—the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Liam Hemsworth, Queen Latifah, Kevin Hart and Chrissy Teigen—provided enough of a lure to get people to tune in.

While Gen Z’s desire for short-form entertainment remained intact, they really only wanted it from TikTok. This was thanks in part to a format that allowed for a sense of community and connection while sheltering in place. On TikTok, the stars weren’t celebrities in the traditional sense either. They were Addison Rae and Bella Poarch, who currently have 71.1 million and 47.6 million followers respectively, simply for miming while cute. The Bad Wiggies (3.4 million followers)—an anonymous trio of Miami girls dancing in empty parking lots—inspired dance moves and fashion choices. And Tabitha Brown (4.5 million followers)—a.k.a. “the world’s favorite mom”—provided cooking videos that proved to be both entertaining and soothing.

Let’s not forget that TikTok was also the platform that gave us Nathan Apodaca, the skateboarding cranberry juice guy. Apodaca acted as the ultimate symbol of how regular people stay zen in dire circumstances, and the nation fell in love with him because of it. (Let’s hope the Fleetwood Mac fan can hang onto that spirit as he battles coronavirus.)

Not even our most famous reality stars could keep up this year. As was evidenced by Jake and Logan Paul moving into amateur boxing, and the Kardashians finally calling it quits on their TV show. (After 14 years and 20 seasons, no less.) In 2020, between Kim casually mentioning North West’s $25,000 Freesian horse, Kanye announcing Kim had become a billionaire, and the now-infamous “trip to a private island,” the family never seemed more out of touch. (Which is an impressive feat considering their track record.)

In the future, when we think about what kept us amused in 2020, we won’t remember movies or TV, we’ll remember the puzzles, the potted plants, the baking and the books. And when we look back and recall the biggest stars of the year, most won’t be from stage and screen. They’ll be the healthcare and USPS workers who worked tirelessly to get us through it. They’ll be the teens who organized and dominated Black Lives Matter marches. And of course we’ll remember Steve Kornacki and his khakis, both of which stayed up for days to provide America with up-to-the-minute results during the weirdest election in living memory.

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It won’t stay like this forever, of course. In a few years, once we get to a post-coronavirus world, celebrity culture will return. But for now, let’s appreciate the reset 2020 gave us. For 10 months now, instead of following famous people’s lives in our spare time, we’ve become almost entirely focused on our own, down here with everyone else, enduring what is sure to be one of the most stressful years of our lives. What we’ve learned about ourselves in the process will be of more value for years to come than anything the world of celebrity could have conjured.